Nothing is yet in its true form – C. S. Lewis
The bird-woman is in the field
in her blue dress, small bird
wrapped in a rag of cotton in her hand,
legs like twigs, throat between songs
The sunlight is squeezing her,
squeezing the field-grass
until her blue dress is a distant boat
and the field is the sea,
somewhere used to slipping boundaries.
Then two men, hands in pockets,
feet sinking into the grey-black of the road.
The sun is hot and high and they wade
into the field, lose themselves
to the waist in straight, green blades.
The bird-woman is scuffing the soft, loose earth,
making a bowl for the body.
She lays the bird
with its broken neck
and covers it with clover,
small red flowers,
When the men capsize her
the pleats of her dress unfurl.
The ground takes their weight.
Em Strang lives, works and writes near Lockerbie in the south-west of Scotland. She has recently completed her doctoral thesis on ecological poetry at Glasgow University so we opened our conversation with the relationship between nature poetry, eco-poetics and ecological poetry.
Em rejects the “eco-poetry” label which is sometimes attached to her work, explaining she’s anxious to reach out to all readers and potential readers of poetry. The eco-poetry label tends to be strongly associated with green politics, activism and didacticism, setting up particular expectations, reactions, and resistances before any poetry is even read.
But “nature poetry” too is unnatural territory for Em – in identifying ”nature” and thereby marking a boundary between humankind on one side, and nature on the other, we deny our own place in, and relationship with, the world around us, setting ourselves apart and above. Nature, then, is a man-made concept in Em Strang’s book. This takes us into some philosophical musings about nature and culture, about the possible equivalence of, for examples, mountains and multi-storeys – since everything “man-made” is ultimately created from “natural” ingredients.
Em’s more comfortable with the “ecological poetry” tag -the phrase sounds less like a sound bite than “eco-poetry”, and this space where poetry embraces ecology admits a wider range of responses, from the scientific to the phenomenological. Ecological writing insists that we humans are part of the natural world, tears down the pedestals which previous movements have placed “nature” on, and emphasises our inter-connectedness. Em draws on the work of contemporary philosophers, Timothy Morton and David Abram, as well as ecological poets, David Troupe and Susan Richardson, to inform her own thinking and writing. But actually, she would prefer to throw away all the labels and just call her poetry, well, poetry.
With the definitions out of the way, we move on to discuss how her poems emerge. Her early work developed out of ideas. However, through her own experience of green activism, Em became aware of how “doing” is privileged over “feeling” such that actions are often taken without first getting in touch with feelings about issues or ideas. With that realisation, she consciously chose to engage readers’ feelings through her poetry.
One of the primary frameworks Em draws on to convey both feeling and connectivity is mythopoesis or mythmaking. She explains that her husband is a professional storyteller so her poetic lexicon is infused with myths and folklore. She writes, for example, about a couple who shapeshift into deer; about a “bird woman” who is violated; about a house that turns into a bird; about wolves and big cats.
Em sometimes uses form – from regular stanzas to sonnets – as a constraint to aid her writing process and to a certain (if less conscious) extent, to provide a kind of container for the wildness of place and of human behaviour that she’s writing about. For hers is not a benign idyllic landscape but a place where “encroaching mountains eat roads” (“Mountains of Things”) and where “trees hang their dead limbs low” (“Night Fishing”); where one women is “ripped/ at the belly, guts torn out” (“The Woodchester Beast”); where another grabs a carp, “snaps its head/ and devours it” (Night Fishing”).
When I comment that there is great beauty in her poetry but also a strong undercurrent of menace and violence, Em simply replies that violence and beauty are not mutually exclusive. The elements and creatures of this world, us included, are all capable of acts we label “cruel” and it is this “shadow” side which often manifests itself in Em’s poetry.
This leads us into discussion of gender in her work. Em is happy to describe herself as a feminist but then quickly adds that she’s a masculinist too – she doesn’t want to perpetuate the duality of male versus female and doesn’t therefore set out to write overtly feminist poems. However, she has a strong feeling that her poems write her, rather than the other way round, and in many of her poems, male violence against women is what emerges, despite herself. With two young daughters, she’s not surprised that daily news of abuse of women seeps into her psyche and into her poetry.
Em talks next of her struggle to find time for writing when her children were infants. This caused her much anguish. While some mothers seemed able to express their creativity in the very act of mothering, for Em, this experience of motherhood was isolating and often boring. However, as her children grew older, she was able to fulfil her own need to write, eventually embarking on an MLitt and then Ph.D in Creative Writing at Glasgow University’s Crichton Campus near Lockerbie.
For her, there is no tension at all between the critical, theoretical aspect of the Ph.D and the creative aspect of writing poetry – in fact, given her love of research and study, the combination is ideal.
With her viva only a few weeks off, Em has already secured a creative writing post at Dumfries prison, working mainly with sex offenders. I’ve a feeling we’re going to read a lot more about Em Strang’s world of understated menace, threat and shapeshifting amidst the bliss and beauty of this world. Keep a look out for a first collection soon – you won’t be disappointed.